Tag Archives: cargo biking

Christmas tree by bike, again

Another December means another trip to get a Christmas tree by bike. So far we have failed to match the experience of carrying a tree by bike that we had in the first year, which was laughably easy. Last year the tree fit in the bike just fine, but Matt dropped the Bullitt and lost one of the support struts holding up the rain canopy, which left the kids miserably cold until we got the new part. That meant the post-tree hauling experience was less than fun.

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

So this year we switched back to the MinUte because I was paranoid about losing a support strut again, even assuming that we removed the canopy in the garage. It turns out that a midtail is great for a smaller tree, but a 7-foot tree with attached stand is a bit beyond the scope of our bike. Matt rode for part of the trip and walked the bike for part of it. The tree was firmly attached with bungees, but so back-heavy that the bike wanted to do wheelies. Maybe it would work if we were heavier riders. Next year, it’s back to the Bullitt (with an extremely careful removal of the canopy and full parts inventory before departure).

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

However we did resurrect last year’s tradition of me riding the kids home on the Brompton. This was a bigger challenge than last year given that I’m not as strong as I used to be. For the last hill my son jumped off and walked with the tree-bike, so I was only carrying my daughter. Ultimately I made it up a decent hill on an unassisted bike with my daughter, who is now pushing 45 pounds, in the front seat. Not bad.

Although I tend to think bringing a tree home by bike is nothing special when I see all the cargo biking families who’ve posted pictures of themselves doing the same thing, it is evidently still pretty avant-garde here in San Francisco, because the lot manager recognized us from previous years. He did report that some families bring their tree home on scooters. And although our hauling strategy has not yet been perfected, it still beats waiting for one of the hotly contested spots in the parking lot and vacuuming a gazillion pine needles out of the car, an experience which historically made us reluctant to buy a tree at all. It is a big deal that we’ve now had some kind of tree three years in a row, as we’re (a) technically a Jewish family and (b) pretty lazy about the whole getting-stuff aspect of the holidays (my kids typically score socks for Christmas). In my defense, though, I always take the two weeks of school holidays off and spend gobs of time with the kids.

We need happi coats if we're going to join the mochi pounding crew.

We need happi coats if we’re going to join the mochi pounding crew.

On Sunday we went to our daughter’s preschool for a winter concert and mochitsuki, which was a bit early for a mochitsuki but pretty incredible nonetheless. Watching a pile of sushi rice turn into a gelatinous mass of delicious mochi is one of those have-to-see-it-to-believe-it experiences, plus we got to eat the mochi. My only complaint about the experience is that the bike parking around Japantown is pretty substandard. But evidently the car parking situation was worse, as a bunch of families arrived late.

P.S. A zero-waste Christmas extra: my gift wrapping strategy. We are pretty mellow about the present-aspect of Christmas, but there are some gifts under the tree. One year my son even got a bike (the bike was left unwrapped).  But most gifts are wrapped in fabric. Thanks to our exposure to Japanese culture, I picked up a few furoshiki in Japantown years ago to wrap gifts, and I reuse them every year. (For furoshiki wrapping techniques, ask the internet, which is almost as eager to teach people how to use furoshiki as it is to teach people how to wear scarves.) When I run out of furoshiki—I didn’t buy a lot because they are kind of pricey for something I use few times a year—I wrap gifts in my scarves or in our flour sack dish towels, which are free because we already own them. I know, know, dish towels: classy! But they are big and square and hey, white is a Christmas color. For larger gifts, I’ll use a pillowcase. And for huge presents, well, we have sheets and a fabric shower curtain. A watercolor pencil will write on fabric and come out in the wash, allowing the lazy wrapper to skip not only wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, but a gift tag as well. Some people make their own furoshiki, or pick up square scarves while thrifting, but ever since I had the dish-towel insight I just can’t bring myself to make the effort.

The tree at home and decorated

The tree at home and decorated

Presents for other people typically go out in a glass jar that would otherwise have been recycled, a flour sack dish towel that I wouldn’t be traumatized to never see again (they’re cheap), or some of my kids’ artwork (always my first choice, but not always available in appropriate sizes).

Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, Kona, San Francisco, zero waste

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

On Friday afternoon things were going terribly at work due solely to the machinations of campus IT, and not for the first time either. After a few hours of suffering I decided to do what everyone else in the office had already done and leave work early. I headed out to get the grocery shopping done, which in our brave new world of zero-waste is usually a pretty entertaining errand. But I was in a foul mood.

Even though I was on the Bullitt, which is a fun bike, the ride was not going well. It was windy and without kids in the bucket the rain cover kept catching the wind and threatening to tip the bike over. On my way down Post Street, there were cars parked in the bike lane roughly every 100 feet, pushing me out into traffic. My usual strategy when I see a car parked in the bike lane is to ring my bell, even though this is completely futile. I like to imagine my bell going: “WTF! WTF! WTF!” The drivers don’t even bother to look up from their phones but it makes me feel better.

Then thanks to yet another car in the bike lane I missed my turn and ended up winding back through the public housing projects south of Geary and their relentless, jarring speed bumps, which are short and sharp and which have sent the Bullitt to the shop with broken cranks once already. By the time I got back on route I was actually cursing to myself, and muttering: “CARS! I hate… CARS!”

I finally got to the Scott Street hill, which is a doozy, but whatever, I was on the Bullitt. To my surprise I saw a dad with his daughter on a trailer-bike preparing to head up that hill a few blocks ahead of me, which is no joke even when riding solo. I was impressed despite my bad mood. As I got closer, they slowed, and then he suddenly lost control and ran into a parked van, and both of them went over. Who among us hasn’t been there?

By the time I reached them they were back up, uninjured and walking up the steepest part of the hill. “Go, dad, go!” I said as I passed, because that kind of effort deserves some credit.

From the top of the hill on, it was all downhill and even though car traffic was backed up all the way through the Wiggle (why are there cars on the Wiggle?), and some of them blocked my big cargo bike temporarily, things got better at Rainbow Grocery. I discovered they have bulk Easter* candy wrapped in paper and foil, which is going to be helpful in a couple of weeks.

It ended up being a major shop but as usual the Bullitt swallowed it all, and as usual the Rainbow employee-owners staffing the parking lot made sure that cars didn’t mow me over when I headed out (many San Francisco grocery stores staff their auto parking lots to prevent the unspeakable mayhem that ensues if drivers are left to fend for themselves). Then I headed home, and thankfully it was a quiet ride. “Where’s the kid?” a guy asked me on Mission. “I’m on my way to get them,” I said.

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

According to the Bullitt’s computer I rode about 15 miles on Friday between the school drop-off and work and shopping and pickups. With all that riding my mood eventually improved, as it always does. I don’t really remember what I did on days like these before we started riding bikes. Probably I drank? Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. And riding is cheaper therapy than either.

*We ceded Easter baskets last year when our son said he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t have an Easter basket. Thanks to all the various holidays we now recognize/celebrate through his school (Oshugatsu Matsuri, Hinamatsuri, Cherry Blossom, Kodomo No Hi, Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, etc. etc.) he sees no reason not to pick up any holiday from any tradition. Fortunately California Judaism is pretty flexible about this kind of thing.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, San Francisco

Xtracycle erumpent

Another EdgeRunner!

Another EdgeRunner!

Last week I spotted the first EdgeRunner I’d seen in the wild. I did a double-take last weekend when I saw it again at the Botanical Gardens. Except that it had different stoker bars. Given that stoker bars aren’t an accessory that people swap out casually, I realized it was an almost-identical EdgeRunner. This bike has been available for what, a month? And I’ve already spotted two? Evidently I’m not the only person who found it appealing. I think this one is a Rosa Parks bike, as I either saw it again or there is a third (!) EdgeRunner in our usual haunts–yesterday morning when I got to school with my son there was yes, a black EdgeRunner parked in the school yard. What’s more, we had dinner with friends last weekend, and the mom, who is in the market for a new family bike, is coveting the EdgeRunner as well.

On Monday, when we were walking with Matt’s parents to brunch, we spotted another Xtracycled bike heading up the hill the other way. Although it was moving fast, I realized it was a Cargo Joe, the folding Xtracycle, and given the speed it was ascending Mt. Sutro and the low hum it made as it went, it was clearly an electric-assist folding cargo bike. We puzzled over that one for a moment, but realized that here in San Francisco, there are thousands of people living in apartment buildings that lack dedicated bike parking (or any kind of parking) but do have elevators. In a hilly city of small spaces, there is evidently a previously untapped market for an assisted folding cargo bike.

We have missed our Bullitt sorely the last few weeks that it has been in the shop.  With it, we don’t need to organize our lives around not having a car. Riding the bike is always better. But not everyone can manage the parking demands and expense of an assisted front-loading box bike, and in San Francisco, which has so few families, the advantages of the front loaders are less widely relevant anyway. As I watched that Cargo Joe glide smoothly to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help thinking that I was seeing the future.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Grocery shopping by bicycle

I consider grocery shopping to be one of least interesting things that I do by bicycle. Compared to figuring out a way to carry two kids simultaneously up and down steep hills, it’s not particularly challenging. I am always surprised to find out that the question of how I carry groceries is interesting to people. Even weirder to me, people who don’t ride bikes regularly typically assume that we must use car share to shop, because no way could we carry groceries on a bike. And I am thinking: dude, we did our shopping by bike even when we owned a car (as a California resident, I am legally required to use the word “dude” at least five times a day).

We live in San Francisco, which is not packed with the kind of giant supermarkets featured in suburban locales. Thus we are not once-a-week shoppers, because we pick up groceries here and there en route to other destinations. Last week, just as an exercise, we shopped entirely without the Bullitt, which can carry anything, figuring that most people do not have a cargo bike.

Trader Joe’s by bike basket: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, box of wine, fruit, crackers, vanilla (plus my lunch bag)

General groceries: There is a Trader Joe’s a block from my office. There is no point in driving to this location, which is the busiest in the entire United States, and where the line to park stretches dozens of cars back at all hours. I usually walk to the Trader Joe’s once a week during my lunch break and pick up things like milk, yogurt, cheese, and pasta. The Trader Joe’s near my office does such a land-office business that its produce is actually okay, so I will also pick up organic fruit on sale.

This week’s farm share (carried in one MinUte pannier): apple pears, arugula, turnips, carrots, persimmons, bok choy, leeks, kale, potatoes

Farm share: Matt takes a martial arts class in our neighborhood on Thursday evenings. On the way home he detours a few blocks to pick up our farm share produce. He transfers the contents into a pannier for the ride home.

Farmers market: strawberries, kettle corn, carrots, apples, oranges, grapes, coffee cake

Farmers market: Our farm share doesn’t provide much fruit, but our kids eat a lot of it, so on Sunday mornings I go to the neighborhood farmers market. My son’s birthday party was this weekend so I bought a full flat of strawberries for the party instead of our usual half-flat. I also picked up four bags of kettle corn at a local grocery store because the boys watched a movie during the party and requested it.

A farm share + Rainbow trip by Kona MinUte: produce and bulk shopping in the panniers plus a 25 lb. box of apples strapped to the deck, no problem!

Odds and ends: We are vegetarians so we don’t buy meat. We also don’t usually buy things like cereal and bread because we make them.  However that means that every few months we need to make a trip to Rainbow Grocery for staples like flour, along with occasional bulk purchases of olive oil, salt, grains and beans. We also stop by Costco (which is across the street from Rainbow) on roughly the same schedule for things like compost bags, toilet paper, and the tissues that we donate to our son’s school.

Historically these stock-up trips have been by car share if we’re with both kids (or if Matt passes by the neighborhood while in a business-related car rental), or by bike if one of us was going solo. Matt’s Kona MinUte can carry anything we’ve ever bought at Rainbow and then some, and it’s not even a full-sized cargo bike. Lots of people shop at Costco with ordinary bikes.

Five pizzas for a kid’s birthday party in the Bullitt is also no problem.

Our future bulk shopping trips will almost certainly be by Bullitt, because it’s more fun and has zero marginal cost. We haven’t used car share since this bike rode into our lives in the middle of last month. For our son’s birthday party on Sunday, Matt took the Bullitt to pick up five pizzas. A load like that isn’t even a challenge for a bike like this.

If you get a real cargo bike your ambitions scale up accordingly. But even with just a midtail and our limited ambitions, we have carried a Christmas tree, two kids and their gear, each other, and the Brompton. A week or even a month’s worth of groceries barely ranks on this scale. Ride on, shoppers.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, San Francisco

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

A series of electric assists

This is the first assisted bike I ever rode, a Surly Big Dummy with BionX.

I first tried a bike with an electric assist last March, just over six months ago, a BionX assisted Surly Big Dummy at Splendid Cycles in Portland. It made quite an impression. Later I tried a mid-drive assist at The New Wheel in San Francisco. Then I tried another mid-drive assist and a front hub motor.  Less than a year ago, I could not have identified the difference between these assists with schematic diagrams and prompts from their designers. I wish I knew then what I know now.

The electric assists I have tried:

  • A front hub motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (eZee)
  • A mid-drive motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (EcoSpeed)
  • A mid-drive pedal-assist motor (Panasonic)
  • A rear hub pedal-assist motor that responds to torque (BionX)

I have pretty strong feelings about what kind of assist I prefer after trying all of these (BionX, although it’s not perfect). Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, but wish you did because you’ve been hearing about this electric assist thing and it sounds kind of cool, but you couldn’t pick an electric assist bike out of a lineup. Read on, friend.

General thoughts

Electric assist bicycles are interesting because they are true car replacements for ordinary people. I have met lots of committed, fiercely strong riders who not only ride to work and for errands and on weekends, but also head for the steepest grades in the city to improve their hill-climbing chops. These guys (they are almost always men) are inspiring, but your average mom of two isn’t going to look at them and say: “Yeah! That could be me!” But put an electric assist on a cargo bike and you are looking at a transportation system that can haul the kids, handle a week’s worth of groceries, dodge traffic, and park right next to the front door of any destination in the city—at the same time. All of this for minimal operating and capital costs, plus enough exercise that you no longer get depressed about not making it to the gym since the kids were born. Many of the factors that make riding a bike seem intimidating—I can’t sweat because I need to look decent for work, no way can I make it up that hill, how am I going to carry the kids, I can’t handle the wind—disappear with an assist. All that’s left to worry about is wet weather. I personally got some waterproof outerwear and found out that I liked riding in the rain, but if I had hated it, heck, we could rent a car on every rainy day in San Francisco without coming close to the cost of owning a car. (In other climates people worry about snow, but from what I’ve read this involves getting some studded winter tires and a cover for the kids and then you’re good.)

Some people like throttle assists (operated by a grip on the handlebar, independent of pedaling) and some people like pedal assists (which multiply your effort as you pedal). My anecdotal impression is that people who come to electric bikes from bikes prefer a pedal assist because it feels like riding a bike. Whereas people I’ve met who ride both bicycles and mopeds, or bicycles and motorcycles, seem to prefer having a throttle. Everybody likes what’s familiar. I came to electric bikes from riding a bicycle as my kids’ weights edged up toward 100 lbs. I didn’t care for the throttle assists I tried.

None of the electric assist systems cost much to charge. Efforts I’ve seen to estimate power costs sort of peter out because they’re so trivial. NYCE Wheels, which sells a lot of assisted bikes and has some great articles on their website about the technology, estimated the cost per charge at maybe 18 cents in New York City, but of course prices depend on local rates. The better systems estimate that a charge can carry an assisted bike at the highest level of assist for 20-45 miles.

Currently there are three kinds of batteries that can power the motor on the market (that I know of): sealed lead acid (SLA), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCd), and lithium-ion polymer (LiPo). The technology for batteries on electric assists is still considered somewhat experimental. Getting the longest possible warranty from a reputable manufacturer is a really good idea. Expect the battery to last only a little longer than the warranty and you won’t be disappointed. Battery replacement is the true cost of maintaining an assisted bike. Compared to the costs of maintaining a car, it’s still bupkis: with a good warranty, it will run $500-$900 every two years at the most.

  • SLA batteries are the least inexpensive electric assist battery. They’re incredibly heavy and take several hours to charge. Bikes with these batteries tend to have limited range (maybe 5 miles). When SLA batteries won’t hold a charge anymore, they have to be disposed as hazardous waste. These batteries are common on e-bikes in China. If you buy an e-bike at a big box store it will have an SLA battery, and it won’t last long. You’ll be replacing entire bikes more frequently than other people replace their bike’s batteries.
  • NiMH (more common) and NiCd (less common) batteries are somewhat more expensive, still heavy, and bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (maybe 10 miles). They were considered an upgrade from SLA batteries at one time, but they have their little issues. One of these is charge memory; occasionally you have to drain the battery down or it will stop fully recharging, and you won’t be able to go as far. When they won’t hold a charge anymore, they will not win any awards for environmental stewardship. However in San Francisco, Sunset Scavenger will recycle them if they’re left taped up in plastic on top of a black can. It’s almost impossible to find these batteries on new bikes, as they’ve been supplanted by LiPo batteries.
  • LiPo batteries are the most expensive, most energy-dense, and lightest weight battery option. LiPo batteries largely dominate the market now. Bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (20-90 miles). Using them with inappropriate chargers or puncturing them can make them explode (exciting!) They can be stored for long periods (1-2 months) without losing charge.

Front hub throttle assist

I tried the eZee front hub motor that comes standard on the Yuba elMundo. This is a 500 watt motor. You can tell there is a motor on the bike because the front wheel has an oversized hub. There are lots of other manufacturers that make front hub motors, and kits made in China, where electric bikes are fairly common, are often found on eBay. However eZee seems to be one of the more reputable manufacturers. On the elMundo there is also a battery attached to the frame, just behind the seat tube (that’s the part of the frame that attaches to the seat) and in front of the rear wheel; however the battery could be placed somewhere else on other bikes (a rear rack, a down tube, anyplace that would hold the weight). The suggested range for this assist system is 20 miles.

  • How it works: You activate the motor by twisting the right handlebar grip away from you. The more you twist, the more assistance you get. When the motor is on, your pedaling appears to add nothing. You can turn the motor on and off with a controller on the left side of the handlebars. The controller is pretty basic; just a switch with lights. The look screamed “high school science fair project” to me.
  • What it feels like: It feels like skitching. Skitching is when you are pulled along by something other than the bike, like when lunatic bike messengers grab onto a passing car. You’re hitching a ride. I have never skitched on a bike because that would be insane, but I have skied. Using a front-hub throttle motor feels a lot like being pulled on a rope tow while on skis (except obviously you’re on a bike).
  • Noise level: Medium. I definitely noticed the sound of the motor while I was riding. I wouldn’t call it noisy, but people walking along the sidewalk alongside noticed the sound, and it also muffles the noise of passing traffic somewhat.
  • Pros: You never have to work going uphill. The eZee motors work with many batteries. They are the Microsoft Windows of electric assists. The system is reasonably priced as electric assists go, although not so cheap that you wonder whether they’re a fly-by-night manufacturer.
  • Cons: A downside of using any of the throttle assist motors is that your power is limited to what the motor can pump out. Pedaling adds nothing. Unfortunately a 500 watt eZee front hub motor didn’t really have the kind of power needed to get two kids up steep hills in San Francisco. I saw one elMundo overheated and out of commission (two older kids on deck, bike on a hill) during our recent Kidical Mass/Critical Mass ride. I have heard other similar stories, although I haven’t personally witnessed them. There is also something weird going on with eZee right now; none of its products seem to be in stock. Using a throttle-operated assist doesn’t feel like riding a bike.
  • Battery type: LiPo. I’ve seen warranties on eZee batteries of either six months or a year.
  • Cost: around $1450 for this motor with a 36v battery.

Mid-drive throttle assist

This is the EcoSpeed Bullitt; the motor is not visible, but note the console above the handlebars.

I tried the EcoSpeed aftermarket mid-drive assist mounted on a Bullitt at Portland’s Splendid Cycles. This is either a 1000 watt or 1500 watt motor; the answer seems to depend on how you frame the question. Mid-drive motors are more efficient than hub motors, so comparing watts between systems isn’t helpful. Unlike many assist systems, the controller did not limit the maximum speed (many state laws limit the top speed on assisted bicycles to 20mph). This discovery led to the following entertaining conversation. Me: “Uh, is this system even legal in California?” Splendid: “Well… no. Maybe. It’s a gray area, legally speaking.”

You can tell there is a mid-drive motor on the bike because there’s a bulbous protrusion near the chain wheel attached to a second chain. The motor drives the second chain and pulls the bike along. On the Bullitt, the batteries were mounted under the front box. You can fit a lot of batteries under the pallet of a long john, and mid-drive motors are pretty efficient; EcoSpeed claims their system can go 35-45 miles.

  • How it works: Twist the right handlebar grip and away you go. More twist, more speed. You can spin the pedals for fun but it’s not necessary, nor does it add any power or speed. The controller is a complicated-looking little computer on the handlebars that details the remaining battery power, speed, mileage, etc.
  • What it feels like: Hard to describe. It’s kind of like riding a train? I could feel that the motor was moving the bike underneath me, but it didn’t feel like I was being pulled; it wasn’t like a front hub motor.
  • Noise level: Unbelievably loud. It sounded like a moped.
  • Pros: This is an insanely powerful motor. It would be great for a construction company. Attach a trailer and you could haul, I don’t know, a load of concrete blocks up steep hills for miles on end. It would be overkill for hauling my kids around the city. Nonetheless, they thought it was wildly entertaining. They still ask about “the fast motor” sometimes.
  • Cons: It’s really noisy and really expensive. It may or may not be street-legal. The motor is so powerful that evidently it sometimes breaks chains on bikes. Using a throttle assisted bike doesn’t feel like riding a bike. To be honest the EcoSpeed scared me a little. I think this assist is best suited to someone who really understands the mechanics of electric assists. I am not that person.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The battery supplied by EcoSpeed has a two year warranty. There’s an option to supply your own battery.
  • Cost: $4,195 for the motor with battery, $150 for the computer.

Mid-drive pedal assist

Two types of bikes at The New Wheel: the Focus has a mid-drive pedal assist, the Ohm next to it has a BionX assist.

I tried a Panasonic mid-drive pedal assist on a purpose-built electric bike at The New Wheel in San Francisco, a BH Emotion Diamond Wave+. Some of the European assisted bikes have really weird and complicated names, I’m sorry to say. I’m going to refer to this bike as the Emotion because that was the name emblazoned on the down tube.

The Emotion has a 250 watt motor that’s built into the frame of the bike; you can tell it’s there because the chain guard looks really fat, like it’s been pumped up on steroids. Because the manufacturer built the system into the bike the torque/motion sensor is hidden inside the frame. There is also a battery mounted behind the seat tube and in front of the rear tire. Like many of the higher-end electric assist bikes, it comes with lights, fenders, chain guard and rack; this bike is designed to be used for transportation, not as a toy.

Mid-drive motors are so efficient that it would be a mistake to think that the comparatively low wattage means that you’re sacrificing power. On this bike I could easily scale hills that I’m fairly certain would have knocked out the eZee entirely. (The New Wheel is cleverly located near some of San Francisco’s more scorching hills. In my neighborhood the hills top out at a 25% grade; there are steeper hills near the shop.)  The BionX and EcoSpeed motors could handle the same hill; in fact I was riding with a friend who was on a BionXed bike (350 watt motor) at the time and he was just peachy. However the suggested range of the Emotion was 45 miles, whereas the suggested range of the BionX bike he was riding (an Ohm) was 35 miles.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the left side of the handlebars where you set an assist level of low, medium, or high (or off). Once it’s on it sends power as you pedal to multiply your effort. On low I wanted to gear down to make pedaling comfortable. On high, gearing down for the hill was optional.
  • What it feels like: Using the mid-drive pedal assist motor felt like riding a beach cruiser along the waterfront regardless of how steep a hill I attempted to scale. People do that kind of thing for fun on vacation. If you ride on a lot of hills already, the experience of using a mid-drive pedal assist is both intoxicating and a little spooky. If you always wanted to ride a bike but don’t because you live on a steep hill, this bike is a dream come true.
  • Noise level: The motor itself is silent. There was a slight rattling from the chain when the motor was running. It was fairly quiet but I noticed it, although someone walking on the sidewalk next to me wouldn’t have.
  • Pros: I like all of the pedal-assist systems because they feel like you’re riding a bike, but you don’t have to suffer (unless you want to). However this system is probably the most sophisticated I’ve ever used in that it doesn’t require you to think about how you’re riding: set the assist and forget it. The mid-drive motor works with internally geared hubs. The motor and battery are unobtrusive. There is a neat feature on most of the European assisted bikes, the “walking assist”, where you can push a button and the bike gives a trickle of power that makes it feel like you’re walking a bike that weighs 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds.
  • Cons: The biggest con is that these systems are currently only built into one-person commuter bikes (but see below for notes on the Stokemonkey). So although you could add a child seat to a bike like this, there isn’t any way to use the assist system to haul serious cargo or two kids, even though the motor is capable of handling those loads. Beyond that there’s only trivial stuff. If you’re using to riding a bike on hills, learning to use this kind of assist appropriately can be a little weird. The goal is to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm and not bear down on the hill, or even necessarily shift down (unless it would make it easier to maintain cadence). I had to remind myself not to *try* to climb the hill. It was like The Matrix: “There is no hill.” But if you haven’t been riding on hills a lot, this won’t be an issue. You’ll take to it immediately. Another minor issue is that people who like to tinker get frustrated that these are closed systems; you can’t mess around with the bike. However I have trouble believing that people like that would have the slightest interest in this kind of bike anyway.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The entire bike has a two-year warranty.
  • Cost: The entire bike, including the electric assist, costs $3,300 at the New Wheel; they offer 12-month 0% interest financing as well.

The Stokemonkey

Once upon a time, there was an aftermarket mid-drive pedal assist system specifically meant for cargo bikes , the Stokemonkey (designed and sold by Clever Cycles in Portland). Although the motor was created for longtail cargo bikes, Stokemonkeys have also been used on front loading box bikes (this is not recommended by the manufacturer, however).  I have, sadly, never ridden a bike with a Stokemonkey. However reports from people who have ridden them claim that the motor is silent, the assist is seamless, and that a stoked, fully-loaded cargo bike can easily climb any hill. The Stokemonkey was withdrawn from production when the cost of parts increased, but is apparently coming back at an unknown (to me, at least) future date and price. Yeehaw!

Rear hub assist that responds to torque

The BionX system can go on any bike with a rear derailleur, including this Yuba Mundo.

I have now ridden two different bikes with aftermarket BionX pedal assists, both in Portland: a Surly Big Dummy and a Bullitt. In both cases the motor was the PL-350 (350 watts), which is the model recommended for climbing steep hills. The BionX controller gives you the option of choosing between four levels of assist, which range from a 75% assist to 300% assist. There is also a thumb switch that acts as throttle, giving the bike a burst of power at the highest level. This is a handy feature when you’re crossing an intersection. The BionX system only provides an assist if you’re moving at least 2 mph, however, so the initial start has to be powered by the rider. This ensures that the bike won’t jerk forward if you accidentally brush a pedal while stopped.

The BionX is a rear hub motor. You can tell it’s there because the hub of the back wheel is much larger than normal. The (proprietary) battery comes in two versions. One is an odd and obtrusive tear-drop shape, which can be mounted in a couple of different places but usually goes on the down tube. The other is a less-obvious flat pack that mounts below a special rack. Although the rack mount is unquestionably more attractive, I have heard from more than one bike shop that the rack mount can be problematic, because that much weight placed high on the back of the bike can make it very tippy. Add kids to the rear deck and the problem is intensified.

The BionX system is an unusual pedal assist system for two reasons: first, it responds to torque, and second, it has regenerative braking.

The BionX provides more or less assist depending on how hard you press on the pedals. For this reason, riding with an assist feels the same as riding without the assist, except you’ve grown massively stronger: push down hard on the pedals and you rocket forward. For people who’ve been riding on hills for a while without an assist this is an intuitive system to use because it mirrors the way they already ride.

Regenerative braking means that as you go downhill and brake, the battery recharges a little. This is a little bit of a gimmick, but not totally. For some reason, many people I talk to about electric assists to seem to think that pedaling the bike should provide all the charging they need for the assist system, as though an assisted bike were some kind of perpetual motion machine. I suppose this is technically possible, but only if you worked exactly as hard as you did on an unassisted bike, in which case, what would be the point of having an assist? Setting aside the expectation of a free lunch, however, regenerative braking has some advantages. The first advantage is that you can use the system to slow the bike while going downhill by setting the controller to a negative assist, turning it into a hub brake. On steep hills where brakes can overheat, which are all over San Francisco, this feature is outstanding. I am paranoid about brakes, so the news that BionX assists came with an independent second braking system had the same effect on me as a face mask full of nitrous oxide at the dentist. Whee! The second advantage is that regenerative braking can decrease range anxiety, because after going downhill you have a little bit more range.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the right handlebar that allows you to set an assist level; there are four levels of assist (and four levels of negative assist that act as a brake). There is also a thumb switch that acts like a throttle and gives a burst of power at the highest level of assist. The controller is also a computer that provides information on speed, distance traveled, and remaining battery life. It is a slick little machine, the iPhone of controllers. Once an assist level is set it sends power to multiply your effort. You can set an assist level and forget it, and just ride around faster than usual with no fear of hills.
  • What it feels like: They call this system BionX for a reason. When it’s on it makes you feel like you’ve suddenly developed super strength, but without the sordidness, health risks or expense of taking performance enhancing drugs. Because it responds to effort (torque), it really does feel just like riding an unassisted bike, except that the experience has become much, much easier. You still use the gears, but don’t ever slow down so much that you wobble on the hills.
  • Noise level: Completely silent.
  • Pros: This system feels more like riding a bike normally than any other assist I’ve used, and yet is powerful enough that I had no trouble hauling two kids up steep hills. In Portland, riding the BionXed Bullitt, I didn’t even need the highest level of assist to clear the local hills without difficulty on brutally hot days. On the hottest day we were in Portland (with a high of 105F), however, I did turn the assist to the highest level and it allowed us to go fast enough to catch a breeze even though I was putting in minimal effort because I feared I might pass out from the heat.
  • Cons: The BionX system currently only works on bikes with a rear derailleur and not with internally geared hubs (however BionX will be releasing a system with a 3-speed internally geared hub next year; this system will only be for purpose-built assisted bikes, however, as the torque sensor has to be built into the frame by the manufacturer). Having to get the speed up to 2mph before the assist kicks in can make starts on a heavily loaded bike very wobbly. There is no walking assist, which would be helpful. (If you make the mistake of trying to use the throttle button as a walking assist, as I once did, the bike will lurch ahead faster than you can follow it.) The BionX system is proprietary and does not allow the use of less expensive batteries from other manufacturers. This really ticks off people who like to tinker with their assists: BionX is the Apple of electric assists.
  • Battery type: LiPo. BionX offers a two year warranty.
  • Cost:  Ranges from $1200-$1800. The more expensive systems are better hill climbers and have greater range.

My conclusion

After riding all of these systems, the one that seemed best suited for our needs was the BionX (but how about a walking assist, BionX?) However, because the battery technology for all electric assists is still a little spotty, I wouldn’t get an assisted bike without the kind of gearing that would have a sporting chance of getting me up serious hills if the battery failed. Our new cargo bike has a wide range of gears.

Our needs are not everyone’s needs. I suspect a mid-drive pedal assist bike would be the best choice for an inexperienced rider facing steep hills. If I wanted to carry seriously heavy loads on a cargo bike, an EcoSpeed would be the better choice (or if it were available, a Stokemonkey). Personally, I didn’t really like being pulled along by a front hub motor, and the version I tried was underpowered for San Francisco hills. However many people like these motors better–I recently talked to one dad who wouldn’t consider any other kind of assist–and it’s possible to buy stronger assists for a front hub. Moreover there are some relatively inexpensive front hub systems available. Battery experience with these systems may vary.

No electric assist with any longevity is inexpensive, and some of them cost more than the bike itself. However I know many families in San Francisco who ride bikes but own a second car only to get the kids to school on top of a steep hill or because they can’t get a week’s worth of groceries home on a bike. Compared to car ownership, an electric assist is a bargain indeed.

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Filed under car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

Cargo bike pocket reviews

Bikes lining up at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

We have tried riding a lot of family bikes over the last month, and for that matter, the last year. We didn’t try everything, although it sometimes felt like it. There are a lot of bikes left that could work for other people. I learned after reading Totcycle’s excellent review of midtails that it’s possible to review bikes you’ve never even ridden so: here goes!

Hard to categorize family bikes (that we have actually ridden)

There are some other configurations out there as well: Family Ride has a Bianchi Milano commuter bike fitted with both a front seat and a rear seat. However that kind of setup starts to get a little difficult once the combined ages of the kids get above about six years. Furthermore, a bike like that is going to need some aftermarket accessories: a decent center stand to keep it from falling over and some way to carry non-kid cargo (like diapers and snacks) are two big considerations.

Cycle trucks

A cycle truck doing a headstand at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

Cycle trucks are bikes with a huge front-end loader that allows people to carry a ton of stuff there. Cycle trucks are similar to a normal bike with a frame-mounted front rack, but typically they have a smaller front wheel too. I don’t hear much about cycle trucks for family biking, as they’re mostly used as delivery bikes. However for one-child families, a cycle truck can be a neat way to haul a bunch of groceries and gear using the front rack/basket, with a younger kid in a front seat behind the handlebars, or an older kid in a rear seat. I could also  imagine putting two (younger) kids on a cycle truck, one in front and one in back, although you’d want to be careful about weight and balance.

Civia Halsted: The Halsted is recommended as a one-kid hauler by Joe Bike, who wrote an excellent summary of what it can do. I also recently learned there’s a family, bikeMAMAdelphia, riding with the Halsted and a cute little boy in a front Yepp seat. This bike looks like a lot of fun, and seems as though it would be good for city families given its relatively petite size. We didn’t take a test-ride because we didn’t make it over to Joe Bike (next time I’m in Portland, though), but we knew we wouldn’t be getting one regardless because given our kids’ ages it would be a one-kid bike. The Halsted seems to run about $1,200.

There are some other cycle trucks out there, but for some reason this design doesn’t seem to have taken off as a kid-hauler in the way that other cargo bikes have.

Longtails

Family Ride carries my daugher and her youngest on her iconic pink Surly Big Dummy

Longtails are the bikes I see most often hauling kids and cargo here in these United States. They are competitively priced relative to most box bikes (e.g. “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows”) and most of them can handle hills, which feature prominently in the terrain of many West Coast cities, including mine. They look like normal bikes and ride like normal bikes except that someone streeeeeeetched the back out so they can be used to carry cargo and kids in the extra space between the rider and the rear wheel. Two kids can fit on the rear deck with enough space to limit fighting, and there’s also room for a front seat for little kids in the front.

Kona Ute: The Kona Ute is the elder sibling of our first cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Unlike the MinUte, the deck is long enough to hold two kids with breathing room. We could have managed a test ride of this bike through our local bike shop, but we ultimately didn’t because friends and acquaintances that had ridden it with kids all said that the rear deck is so high that the bike never really felt stable. Only people over six feet reported getting comfortable with it. As a cargo bike, with the load down low in the panniers, the Ute is apparently fantastic. However we didn’t find anyone who’d stuck with the Ute as a family bike long-term; they’d all switched to other bikes, most frequently the Big Dummy or the Mundo. There are great prices on this bike on secondhand, which may be worth investigating for tall parents. List price is $1,300.

Sun Atlas: The Sun Atlas is the cheapest of the longtails (cargo bikes are generally not cheap) at an astonishing price of less than $700. We didn’t take a test ride of this bike for two reasons: first, we didn’t make it to Joe Bike when we were in Portland and no one else had it in stock, and second, the components, as one might expect given the price, are not great. San Francisco is pretty hard on bikes and we have replaced many parts on the Kona MinUte already (brakes, wheels, pedals, tires, derailleur guide) due to local conditions. This has grown tiresome given that Matt needs to ride that bike almost every day, and the days he doesn’t need it, I usually do. We knew that we wanted a bike this time that wouldn’t constantly need to go to the shop. But for people who live in less difficult conditions or ride less frequently, this could be a good option. Carfree with Kids considered this bike, and there are discussions of it on the websites of Joe Bike and Clever Cycles. Note that there appears to be some disagreement as to whether it would work for shorter riders.

How to spend a Sunday afternoon: Meet friends from school, ride around on cargo bikes.

Surly Big Dummy: Our experience riding this bike is here. There are so many other reviews of this bike on the internet that I didn’t bother to sort through them.

Trek Transport/Transport+: Trek recently released the Transport and Transport+ cargo bikes; the Transport+ is sold with an electric assist. It has a very interesting rear bag design that looks as though it can carry quite a lot of stuff, but with those side loader bars this bike appears to be even wider than the Yuba Mundo. Trek specifically states that the Transport is not designed to carry passengers, not even on a child seat. We didn’t look for one to try because we wanted a bike to carry our kids.

 

Put a FreeRadical on it, Portland.

Xtracycle FreeRadical/Radish: The Xtracycle FreeRadical isn’t really a bike per se but a longtail attachment that can be added to an ordinary bike. It is the ancestor of the American longtail. The Xtracycle Radish is a FreeRadical attached to a donor bike for people who don’t have one of their own. We didn’t seriously consider a FreeRadical because they are reported to be unstable above about 70 pounds of weight and our kids together weigh more than that. They also have a reputation for flex on hills, and there are a lot of those where we live. But for people in flatter locales (which is, okay, basically everyone) or with younger kids, or a single kid, this is a very cost-effective way to start family biking. Plus it gives you access to the many wonderful Xtracycle accessories. The Xtracycle catalog is so extensive and complicated that I have trouble figuring out how much stuff costs though. Davey Oil keeps promising to write more about his beloved Wheelio, a Japanese mixte bike that he Xtracycled. Car Free Days has written for years about their Xtracycles, which did in fact make them car-free.

Xtracycle EdgeRunner: The Xtracycle Edgerunner (link goes to the Momentum review) is the first bike that seems to have been developed specifically for families who are riding in very hilly terrain. Thank you, Xtracycle! Our experience test-riding this bike is here.

Yuba elMundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Yuba Mundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Midtails

Our MinUte chats up some other school bikes at one of the courtyard racks

As of 2012, three companies have developed a new kind of cargo bike: the midtail. (Okay, update in December 2012: the first midtail was really the venerable Workcycles Fr8. At first I’d classified it as a longtail, but it is short enough–although much too heavy in its kid-hauling incarnation–to fit on a bus bike rack, so I’m now calling it a midtail.) The first American midtail was the Kona MinUte, and it was enough of a hit that two more companies have now developed similar designs: Yuba, a fantastic company in Sausalito developing heavy-duty family bikes, and Kinn, a new startup in Portland making only a midtail. As the name implies, midtails are like a longtail, but shorter. The big advantage of the shorter length is that (most of) these bikes are transit friendly: they can fit on a bus bike rack or Amtrak (given some maneuvering). The best place to learn about these bikes is Totcycle’s outstanding summary.

If your kids are widely-spaced, say more than three years apart, you could fit an infant seat on the front of a midtail and put the older one on the deck behind. Then when the little one outgrows the front seat, the older is likely to either be riding solo or riding a trailer bike. Or you might be able to swing a couple more years with one on the front using a Leco top tube seat (which–fair warning!–is not suitable for all bikes). Stick a Follow-Me Tandem coupling on a midtail and it could be the only family bike you ever need. The midtail, which has much more cargo-carrying capacity than a normal bike, also appeals to non-parents looking for a normal-looking bike to haul groceries and other loads that would otherwise require attaching a trailer.

Our first bike was a midtail, the Kona MinUte. Like all midtails it can carry one kid on the rear deck (two kids can fit there too, but only if they’re in a good mood). The rear deck can also be fitted with a child seat for younger kids. We’ve never found a seat necessary once our kids reached three years, but your mileage may vary, and there are seats for older kids if so (the Bobike Junior or Yepp Junior). Adding a seat cushion is a nice touch.

Kona MinUte: Our experience riding this bike is here.

I'm embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

I’m embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

Workcycles Fr8: The Fr8 is a European midtail that has the capacity, unlike most of these bikes, to carry an child in front that is over the length/weight limit of a normal front child seat. The front seat mounted to the top tube is a saddle, and really best for kids old enough to balance. A big advantage of the Fr8 is the ability to keep two kids separated and still carry a bunch of stuff (the Fr8 accepts standard panniers and has a huge front rack), or to carry three kids after adding two rear seats. However this is a Dutch bike designed for the flat flatlands of the Flatherlands and it weighs 75 pounds, reportedly can’t go up more than a mild hill, and isn’t recommended for an electric assist. (There is evidently a lighter version coming recently or soon called the Gr8.) We live in San Francisco: there is no way. I still feel like I should have ridden this bike when we were in the shop, and I regret that I didn’t. It was 100 degrees that day and we were just so tired because we’d already ridden a half dozen other bikes that morning. If I lived someplace flat I would not have skipped trying this bike, even though the base model costs $2,200. It looked indestructible and is supposed to have a very smooth ride, and there are a lot of nice features like lights, a full chain guard, and fenders included in the price. Mamafiets wrote a nice review of the Fr8.

Yuba Boda Boda: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Kinn Cascade Flyer: We didn’t try this bike because it wasn’t released yet (but I’d love to when it shows up in the Bay Area). The Kinn is a gorgeous midtail based on a mixte frame, which means that the top tube slopes down toward the seat so it’s easier to step on and off. There are some very clever features on this bike: part of the deck rotates out 180 degrees to hold wide loads or make a better seat; it has a lockbox integrated into the rear deck, the passenger footpegs are adjustable, and it appears to have bars below the deck that will hold standard panniers. The Kinn is the only midtail that allows the attachment of a Follow-Me Tandem. It went into a tiny production run in Fall 2012 (30 bikes) and lists for about $2,000. More are on the way in 2013. The extra cost gives you those clever design features, nicer parts, and a bike built in the USA.

Box bikes

Our son is almost four feet tall and he still fits on the Brompton with me.

Most parents love front box bikes, aka long johns, aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” because the kids are in front where you can see them and talk to them. When we first started thinking about biking with our kids this didn’t seem like an important consideration. The more we rode with them the more we started to care. I ride the Brompton, which has a front child seat, in places that I probably shouldn’t (it’s not a great hill climber) just because I love having my kids in the front. I can see them and they lean back and look at me. They get a great view and are much more engaged in what’s going on. And my son will sometimes throw his arms around mine to hug me while we’re riding the Brompton and shout, “I LOVE YOU, MOMMY!” I have no words. I will keep him on that seat until he’s taller than I am.

See what I mean? You can put all kinds of stuff in a box bike.

So: front box bikes are cool. They’re also really good haulers, because they have a cargo box. You can carry stuff in a box bike that would never fit in a car, like bookshelves. Front box bikes are also expensive relative to longtails, and most of them have virtually no hill climbing capability. So that’s a bummer.

Babboe: The Babboe is a cheap knockoff of the Bakfiets, listing at around $2,000 instead of $3,500. I don’t know much about this bike. It no longer appears to be available in the United States, which explains why I didn’t ride it. Reviews suggest that it’s a poor hill climber. There are also concerns about the parts not being particularly durable. (This is the “no free lunch” problem.) And here’s a 2013 updated review from bikeMAMAdelphia.

Bakfiets: Our experience riding this bike is here. There are many other reviews of this bike out there, but one of the best I found was written by a father on the one-year anniversary of getting the bike.

Bullitt: Our experience riding this bike is here. (This is the bike we bought.)

Four kids pile into the Largo. It was hard to get them to take turns.

CETMA Margo/Largo: I really wish I’d tried this bike too. There weren’t any in stock at the shops we visited (and for that matter, at the shops we didn’t visit). I did see one at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call, and the kids loved it. They were piling four at a time into the box and riding around. The pros of the CETMA, from what I’ve read, are that it offers a very stable ride, can climb at least moderate hills, and that it’s relatively easy to add an electric assist, at which point it can climb steep hills. What’s more, the frame splits into two parts, making the resulting package small enough to transport easily. The CETMA costs $2,850 for a complete bike, although this price does not include the box, which sells for $300. When you add in all the extras you’d get on a Bakfiets, like lights, chain guard, fenders, seatbelts, and so forth, it’s probably comparable. However much of the bike can be customized, because all CETMA bikes are made by one guy who formerly lived in Eugene but recently moved to California. As a result, he stopped producing bikes in June 2012 and is currently collecting orders, which he’ll begin filling again in October 2012. This meant that we would have had to fall for this bike very hard, because getting one would involve a long wait indeed. Without a test ride that wasn’t going to happen. That said, one of the reasons we got the Bullitt was that its narrow profile made it easier to ride on the busy streets of San Francisco, and the CETMA bikes are definitely not that narrow. I found a video review from one happy customer (but: six months to get the bike!) and a written review from a less-happy customer.

[updated] Christiania 2-wheeler: This is a dark horse box bike that I had never even heard of until I read the comments on the original post. One mom riding a Christiania wrote an extremely detailed review of the bike, as well as how it works for their family, with some great thoughts on similar bikes in its class as well.

Gazelle Cabby: Clever Cycles used to stock the Gazelle Cabby, but they didn’t have one when we visited and no one else did either. The Cabby is distinctive in part because it has a fabric rather than a wooden box. The box actually folds up from the top, and with the top edges together it can be locked with stuff inside, which is pretty neat. In addition, the folding box means that the bike can be made very narrow, which makes parking it much easier. However I wonder about the durability of the fabric of the box, and like most box bikes it’s slow and supposedly hard to get up hills. It is a Dutch bike so it comes with lights, a chain guard, fenders, and a rear wheel lock. When it’s in stock Clever Cycles sells it for $2,800. Family Ride has ridden the Cabby twice (1, 2), and a couple of other families have written up their impressions as well. And in 2013, bikeMAMAdelphia weighs in again with a test ride.

Metrofiets: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Shuttlebug (and Joe Bike Boxbike): These made-in-Portland bikes are no longer in production.

Urban Arrow: The Urban Arrow is a fascinating take on a front box bike. It has a lot of interchangeable parts, so the bike can switch from being a family bike with seats for kids to a cargo hauler with a locked box. It’s also possible to swap out the entire front end and turn it into a cycle truck. Best of all, it comes with an integrated mid-drive electric assist. For parents living in hilly locales, this bike is like a dream come true. The problem was that when we were looking it wasn’t available in the US, and given the long lead time (it had been “coming soon!” for three years) I assumed it would never be. As of March 2013, I am delighted to eat crow, because the Urban Arrow is now available in the US: read about bikeMAMAdelphia’s test ride! Originally Rolling Orange was selling the assisted version for $4,300, however the price has since increase. Here’s a 2013 update on life with the Urban Arrow, again from bikeMAMAdelphia. Word on the street is that this bike is painfully hard to get–they come to the US every once in a while in shipments of six bikes, which sell out immediately.

Winther Wallaroo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Tandems

This is a tandem for grownups, but you could put kid-cranks on it.

Tandems are fun! Okay, we’ve never ridden one, but they sure look fun. One friend rides a triple tandem with his daughters to school. Car Free Days just rode two tandems down the West Coast as a summer vacation. My kids are very excited about the idea of tandems, because riding a tandem would allow them to pedal, which they think is cool. Tandems are also interesting because as a couple of people have now pointed out to me, they have solved the cargo bike braking issue. Modern tandem bikes typically have two sets of brakes: hub brakes to slow the bike and wheel brakes to stop them. Both are controlled by the captain (the rider steering, who usually sits in front, although not always). With two sets of brakes, it’s possible to slow and stop a heavily loaded bike without the brakes overheating, and with a backup system you’re less likely to launch off the edge of a hill if one set of brakes doesn’t have enough stopping power by itself. When I learned that I was even more excited by the idea of a tandem bike. However a weakness of these bikes is that they’re not great for carrying cargo (they usually hold a set of standard panniers at most, plus whatever riders want to carry on their bodies). In addition, for situations where one person gets off one place and another gets off somewhere else, like our commute, it would be weird (and heavy) to haul around an empty bike. On the up side, with everyone on board and pedaling, they’re supposed to go really fast.

This is Shrek 2.

Bike Friday triple tandem: The PTA president at our son’s school and his partner bought a Bike Friday triple tandem on eBay to take their daughters to school. It is big and green, so they call it Shrek 2. My kids go nuts for this bike. ALL kids go nuts for this bike (except for their girls, who are used to it). They offered us the chance to ride it for a couple of weeks this summer while they were away and I was so excited. However our daughter, at age three, is still too small to fit on the bike and so we decided to wait until she was taller (otherwise there would be meltdowns when her brother could ride and she couldn’t). We had hoped to try riding this bike in 2013, but unfortunately I was hit by a car, and while I was incapacitated they swapped it for an Xtracycled tandem. The advantages of a triple tandem bike are pretty obvious: a parent can take two kids somewhere and get help going up hills, plus the kids are excited to help pedal and don’t get cold because they’re doing some work. Plus the coolness factor is off the charts; practically everyone riding in San Francisco recognizes this bike. A downside is that the bike is really long. I have no idea what a triple tandem would cost new; it was custom before they scored it on eBay.

Buddy Bike: The Buddy Bike is another Joe Bike production. It allows special needs kids to ride in the front of a tandem bike holding onto the handlebars. But because the handlebars are quite long the parent in back is really controlling the steering. This is such a lovely idea, although it’s a specialized market. We didn’t try it because our kids don’t fit the profile and because we didn’t make it to Joe Bike (which I am really kicking myself about as I write this).

Circe Helios family tandem:  I heard about the Circe Helios from a blog reader. It’s a longtail! It’s a tandem! It fits on public transit! It’s not available in the United States! [update: Yes it is! College Park Bicycles in Maryland is now importing the Circe Helios. They say it is in stock but have no details or prices on their website, which is bike123.com.] The Circe Helios has 20” wheels, in part to keep the length down to public transit compatibility (I’m not sure whether it would really fit on a bus rack, or just British trains). The back end can be switched from a long tail that holds to two child seats and cargo to a tandem seat with room for a rear child seat (and cargo bags). The stoker seat in the rear can be adjusted to carry any size rider from about a three-year-old to an adult. A couple could buy this bike and keep it through two kids learning to ride, then switch back to riding it solo as a longtail or as a couple in its tandem form when the kids grew up. It’s a lifelong bike.

Outside of Counterbalance Cycles, where we did not try riding a tandem.

Co-Motion PeriScope: When we were in Seattle we had the chance to try a Co-Motion PeriScope at the very friendly Counterbalance Bicycles, a shop located right on the Burke Gilman trail. Co-Motion makes tandems noted for their hill climbing chops. I spent a lot of time convincing my son, who was in a very grouchy mood after falling off a BMX bike he’d been riding, that he wanted to try this bike. It was very disappointing when we discovered he was still about an inch too short to reach the pedals. The Co-Motion is a sport tandem not set up for commuting in any way; it didn’t even have fenders. But it looked like it would go really fast. I like that. We will return to Seattle again; my mom lives up there. When my son is taller, we will ride this bike. The model we almost tried cost about $3,000.

KidzTandem: The KidzTandem is a kid-in-front tandem bike that Clever Cycles sells. Having the kids in front on a tandem has the same advantages as having the kids in front in a box bike. We were very excited to try this bike, even though no one seemed optimistic about its ability to climb hills, and the review I found agreed. Unfortunately Clever Cycles had just sold the only one they had had in stock (“This has never happened before!”) It costs $2,000 and eventually they’ll get another one in stock. I think you can rent it when that happens, and Clever Cycles has very reasonable rental rates.

My husband: “That Onderwater is the goofiest bike I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

Onderwater triple tandem: In one of those weird twists of fate, Clever Cycles did actually have a family tandem in the store, the Onderwater triple. It had been custom-ordered for another family and was already sold, so it wasn’t a bike we could test ride. It’s not a bike they usually stock. The Onderwater triple, like the KidzTandem, puts the kid in the front. Chicargobike has an Onderwater that they’ve written about. Like most of the Dutch bikes there are lots of creative ways to carry kids on this bike; in addition to the front stoker seats (up to two), there is an optional jump seat that can be attached in front of the parent, and it’s also possible to put a rear child seat on the back. So you could have up to five people on one bike, and three of them could pedal (no, Dutch families don’t wear helmets, thanks to all that protected infrastructure). Like all the Dutch bikes, it comes with all the goodies: lights, fenders, chain guard (on a tandem, no less). Like all the Dutch bikes, it weighs a ton and you couldn’t get it up a serious hill even if you were being chased by a horde of ravenous zombies. The triple tandem is a custom bike so pricing is unclear. [Update: There is now an Onderwater tandem roaming the streets of San Francisco--a dad riding his kids to school. He said that they make it up moderate hills.]

Tricycles

Matt is looking for a route that doesn’t have anything approximating a hill because we’re riding trikes.

We rode a couple of trikes, the Christiania and the Nihola. There are other trikes on the market (Bakfiets makes one, plus there’s the well-reviewed Winther Kangaroo, Family Ride rode the Triple Lindy, etc.), but I’ve never given them much thought because trikes are totally impossible on hills and we live in San Francisco. I think that they could be fun in flat cities.

Somebody stick a fork in me: I think I’m done for a while. Did I miss anything? Please let me know in the comments!

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We tried it: Specialized Hardrock and a Burley Bee trailer

What’s this?

In our effort to try every cargo bike configuration we could get our hands on, we started out traditionally. While in Bellingham, we rented a mountain bike with a child trailer. My kids have ridden on many different cargo bikes now, plus a couple of bikes rigged as child haulers after the fact (Brompton with IT Chair, city bikes with child seats) but this was their first trip in an actual trailer, and my first time hauling them.

The Specialized Hardrock is a mountain bike. For the purpose of hauling a trailer around town, it was not everything I could have wished for: it had no kick stand, no chain guard, no fenders, no lights, and no bell. The brakes evoked a howling chorus of demons with their shrieking and the saddle was indistinguishable from an anvil.

The full rig

However, renters can’t be choosers and after riding the many gravel-strewn bike paths of Bellingham (which are BEAUTIFUL! Seriously, there is no reason to ever get in a car in Bellingham, it was amazing!) I came to appreciate the knobby tires and front suspension. The bike was very light, which made it an excellent climber, as well as easy to pick up when I had to drop it on the ground to stop riding because there was no tree or post to lean against. Also the pedals were okay, and the shifting was smooth.

While I have little basis for comparison, the Burley Bee, by comparison, seemed much better designed for our use. It helped that the shop had just replaced its rental trailer. Our ride was this particular Bee’s maiden voyage, and it was, as a result, spotless. Evidently the Bee is the entry-level Burley double trailer, but it seemed to have everything that we would want in a trailer, if we wanted a trailer, and I actually sort of do want one now.

Seemed cramped to me, but the kids had no problem with it.

My kids were fascinated by the Bee from the moment they saw it. Luckily my kids get along well so the fact that they were crammed in there pretty tightly was not a problem from their perspective until they’d been riding for almost three hours. During that time we took a few bakery, playground and farmers market breaks, plus multiple stops to put the cover on, take the cover off, put the cover on, take the cover off (they were yanking my chain). Anyway, by the end of the ride they were hitting each other and crying, but they lasted longer than I’d expected.

The pros of this setp:

  • A double trailer can fit two older kids (currently almost 7 years and 3.5 years) without too much squeezing. My son is older than the advised age range for trailers but skinny and tall.
  • It is very, very difficult to tip a trailer over and dump the kids on the ground. I did not manage to do it. Go me!
  • The kids adored the wind and rain screens, and could not stop talking about the potential of this particular rig to keep them from getting wet and cold in the winter. The trailer eliminated their primary concern about not having a car anymore. I thought that although the covers were tensioned with elastic rather than zippered they were well designed and quick to attach and remove. The design of the trailer itself was actually very clever, allowing me to add and remove the front covers without anything coming loose or flapping.
  • The Burley Bee has a junk drawer.

    The Burley Bee comes with a fairly large storage pocket behind the kids seats that can hold a couple of grocery bags, toys, garbage, souvenir rocks, jackets, etc. This was really handy and it appears to be waterproof.

  • There are storage pockets on one side of the kids to hold smaller items (but only on one side, which was a really bad design decision).
  • For quite a while my kids considered the ride an absolute blast, and entertained each other by singing songs and chatting.
  • The Burley trailer seemed quite well made, with strong seams and stiff fabric. Admittedly ours was brand new. The Bee trailer we were riding doesn’t offer a stroller-conversion option (this would never be needed for its purpose as a bike shop rental trailer) but some of the higher-end Burley models do.
  • It was simple to convert the trailer from carrying one kid to two kids. The belts allow two kids side by side, one kid on one side, or one kid in the center. Putting one kid to the side didn’t mess up the balance as far as I could tell.
  • This is the biggest hill we climbed in the trailer.

    Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was relatively easy to pull the fully-loaded (probably 120+ pounds counting trailer, kids and gear stuffed in the back pocket) trailer up a moderate hill—we went up a long slope connecting a multi-use path over the water back to city streets. The sign said it was a 10% grade, and the trip kicked my heart rate up but did not make me sweat.

The cons of this setup:

  • Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was at times terrifying going down hills with the trailer, especially on gravel. Once the weight of the trailer, which was pushing me, flung my bike back and forth like the end of a whip. I ended up aiming the bike toward a strong fence at the bottom to stop us—we slid up alongside where I grabbed it and almost toppled over. The kids cheered and asked to do it again because the trailer itself was very stable. However from my perspective this was a big downside. It might be less of an issue with a heavier bike, but I suspect in that case it would be much harder getting up hills.
  • There are pockets in the rear of the trailer compartment to fit helmets but they did not work well for either of my kids, who complained that their heads were pushed too far forward. If it were just my son, who is beyond the age/weight/size limit, I wouldn’t worry, but my daughter also complained, and she is in the appropriate age range. They also asked why they had to wear helmets given that they were in a trailer, when they don’t have to wear helmets in a pedi-cab. I didn’t have a good answer for that.
  • The kids are there but not all there, if that makes sense.

    It was not easy to talk with them while they were in the trailer. My kids are extremely chatty and I missed their conversation, although given that I was solo parenting there was also an element of relief to have some time when someone wasn’t saying, “Mommy! Mommy? MOMMY!” With a trailer you’re with your kids but not WITH your kids. It’s like having them in the next room.

  • The trailer turned like a semi, often caught on fence corners on the multi-use path, and parking it at normal bike racks when we stopped was a nightmare. Bike racks are currently designed for ordinary bikes and not cargo-anything, including trailers. Parking meters and signs are not any better. Even the narrowest double trailer is about 30” wide, and there are places that that just won’t fit.
  • Even though the Burley Bee was brand new, the fabric floor sagged somewhat when loaded. I suspect it would eventually catch on bumps. I have heard there are trailers with solid floors.
  • Eventually, kids crammed in a trailer will fight. At one point when we were with Family Ride in Seattle, her kids, who were in her trailer, began shrieking, “AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! GET ME OUT NOW!” as we climbed up a hill. They were almost louder than passing cars, and it was difficult to extricate them on a busy street. I was riding her Big Dummy with only my daughter on board, so it was relatively easy to pop one kid out and drop him on the Dummy once we could pull over. But in a situation with only one adult it could have been very ugly. An experience like this can really make a person think hard about dropping a couple hundred dollars on a trailer, if that person is me.
  • “Stop. Please stop. I really don’t want to have to ask you again.”

    An older, taller kid like my son could reach forward with his feet while in the trailer and put them on the rear tire. This was a bad idea on several levels but it didn’t stop him. (It never does.)

  • The vast majority of the conversation with my kids consisted of their requests for me to stop and take the cover off, put the cover on, now just the wind screen but not the rain cover, now we want the rain cover, we want the covers off. Some of this was the novelty value and I’m sure it would wear off a little, but it got tiresome to keep stopping the bike.

So there are some downsides, particularly for our situation, which is admittedly atypical (we have no car, we live on the side of a mountain in a large city that has no neighborhood schools or school buses and thus we face a long commute with kids, etc.) And yet the trailer has some appeal. Mostly I see its value for traveling.

There are some downsides, but this setup is probably a lot cheaper and more versatile than a triple tandem with S&S couplers.

It is extremely hard to travel with a cargo bike. They aren’t allowed on trains, they often don’t fit on cars, and planes are out of the question. Trailers can usually be collapsed into a travel-friendly package. Most of the places we travel, like my mom’s, are places my kids could ride by themselves, except that it’s virtually impossible to rent kids’ bikes. Believe me, we have asked. With the Brompton and a trailer we could travel and not have to worry as much about renting a car or getting rides.

I can also see the value of a trailer for days that my kids would otherwise object to riding somewhere, particularly cold and rainy days. I would want to think hard about the routes we might take with a trailer, given the pounding it gave my rental bike going downhill, but with a heavier bike it could work very well for foul weather. And having the extra cargo capacity could be extremely useful.

Hey mountain bike, I haven’t forgotten that you made me look even more like a dork than usual.

So at this point I am seriously considering keeping an eye out for a used trailer. I can’t imagine it would be worth buying one new for the kinds of uses we’re considering. However if we could find one for the price of a week’s rental in Bellingham, I suspect it would be worth having around.

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Homesick for the north, homesick for the south

Our first trailer ride

From Bellingham to Seattle to Portland: we have arrived, and so excited to see daddy again. I haven’t had much chance to update while gamboling around the Pacific Northwest mostly solo with two kids, but I’ve also been constrained by the constant barrage of fun. I grew up in Seattle and Bellingham and I was overwhelmed by homesickness. They are both really good places to ride bikes with kids.

So eight family bikers lock up together…

We stayed with my mom and rented a bike and trailer (the kids loved their first trailer ride). Then we stayed with the always awesome Family Ride and rode a Madsen, her pink Big Dummy, and a MinUte. We went to a Seattle Summer Streets and got to see Jen of Loop-Frame Love again. At the Seattle Cargo Bike Road Call my kids rode in a Cetma cargo bike and a Bakfiets and got chauffeured by Davey Oil around Gas Works Park in an amazing electric-assist trike. My son got to ride a handful of kids’ bikes and learned how to shift gears! Then we took an Amtrak ride south from Seattle to Portland. It is a good way to travel with kids, especially given that they seated us near the bathroom, which made it easy to clean up various spills.

Barbecue in Portland

Matt, although he is a committed Californian, loves Portland. He arrived before we did and went grocery shopping for us. Seeing the rib joint nearby, with its “Try our new vegetarian fare!” sign was almost enough by itself to convince him Portland should be our new home. We have seen many, many family bikes, mostly of the traditional variety with child seats and trailers, but I’ve always liked child seats on bikes. I’m coming around to trailers as well, at least in flat cities with limited car traffic.

My kids were the ones chanting “Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak!” in car #9 for most of the ride down from Seattle. I apologize.

We’ll be here for a week trying out even more cargo bikes, not to mention cargo trikes. The kids are so excited to see their dad again after a week away that I might even have some time to write about all that’s happened (and to answer a bunch of questions I’ve been asked in the comments).  In the meantime I hope everyone else is having a week just as awesome.

And I almost forgot: I just found out that San Francisco will be holding its first Kidical Mass on September 28th! Thanks so much, MizShan! The ride will meet at 6pm at the fountain at the southeast corner of Justin Hermann Plaza and head to Dolores Park. We will be there!

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Transportation resources for car-free (and car-light) families, in San Francisco and beyond

When we sold our minivan, one of the things that made it easier not to replace it was the discovery of all kinds of new ways to get around the city without our own car. Realizing there were all these options that offered a safety net helped us finally make a decision. The resources below are so ridiculously exhaustive that we would be hard-pressed to use them all regularly, so we don’t. When we need to get somewhere, we primarily ride our bikes, walk, or take transit, in that order. Every once in a while, for a longer trip, we rent a car from City CarShare or Matt rents one from an agency for a business trip.  Everything else listed below fills in the occasional gaps. For example: my employer, as part of its commitment to reducing car commuting, will reimburse the cost of a ride home from work in the event that a non-driver has a sick kid or bicycle breakdown. I am willing to use some of the more expensive services I’ve listed in emergency situations because time is an issue, and because I know that I’ll be reimbursed. Other companies in San Francisco have similar programs, but they’re poorly advertised, so check with HR before you decide to smack me for being so lucky.

Overall, our bikes are the best transportation choice on most occasions: they are personal vehicles that we can use at our discretion, they’re largely immune to traffic, and we can always find parking. This is why it’s often faster to ride a bike than to drive in San Francisco. But there are occasions that these other options really shine, and they might work even better for other families, and they’re so interesting I thought they were worth documenting in this outrageously long post.

Some useful tools for the car-free family:

  • Cash: Transportation is one of the final holdouts of a cash economy, along with Chinese restaurants, cooperative bakeries, and gambling. I carry around more cash than in the past.
  • Credit card: That said, the majority of ride-sharing services don’t work unless you have a credit card on file.
  • Transit cards: The miserable days when we had to make sure we had two singles in order to ride Muni disappeared when we purchased Clipper cards.
  • Smartphone: I did not get a smartphone until last week, because I live in my own personal Dark Ages. But there is no question that it makes the car-free life easier. Now I can look up bike routes, the next bus, or schedule a car ride instantly. The BayTripper and PocketMuni apps are particularly helpful, as is Bikesy (the bike route mapper for Baytripper).
  • RideSafer travel vests or other portable car seats: We got RideSafer travel vests  as car seat replacements for our trip to Europe last year because they were light enough to meet luggage weight restrictions on European

    Using the RideSafer travel vests in our San Diego rental car.

    airlines. But they are incredibly handy for travel with kids; two fold up small enough to fit in a backpack with room to spare for snacks. Although the kids find them uncomfortable on long trips, they are perfect for short rides. They are pricey but we travel enough out of state that it was worth it to us (also, look for sales; we paid much less than the current price). The vests only work for older kids (arguably 2.5 years and up). However, when we traveled with our son as a baby, we took an infant car seat without the base with us—these styles of car seat all have instructions for installation by seatbelt. And after hearing the stories of such car seats releasing from their bases in collisions, I now suspect that he was safer that way. On occasions when we take longer drives with our kids (e.g. to the Monterey Bay Aquarium) we use regular folding car seats, which now spend most of their time in storage.

  • Folding cart/stroller: It’s nice to have a way to haul kids and/or groceries around. When our kids don’t want to ride a bike to the farmers’ market, we take the stroller and pile up purchases underneath, or we take a folding shopping cart (ours actually works as a cargo-only bike trailer as well).
  • Named non-owner auto insurance policy: If you don’t own a car, but drive, you can still buy auto insurance. We’re on the fence about whether to get a policy like this. It’s not necessary for a lot of car sharing services, which have great insurance (better than you could buy as an individual). But if you’re in a situation where you rent a lot, and have to use national rental agencies, it could be a good deal.

Just the basics (for the more interesting options, skip down to #8)

1. Feet

  • What they are: Look down.
  • When to use them: Local shopping and neighborhood restaurants, visiting local friends and attractions
  • How they work: If you’re able-bodied you know this already.
  • Pros: Good exercise; helps us learn about the neighborhood; we live in San Francisco so everything we need to live is within walking distance
  • Cons: Limited range (especially if kids are involved); limited ability to carry stuff; slow
  • What it costs: Free!
  • Good to know: We can walk further than we think we can, even when carrying a grumpy six-year-old uphill.
  • Personal experience: We like walking; early dates with my husband were long walks.

2. Bicycles (the practical kind, not the road racing/mountain biking kind)

  • What they are: Those things on two wheels most people learned to ride as kids; but if you didn’t, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will teach you how to ride in a couple of hours.
  • When to use them: Virtually anytime, although in San Francisco it can be a little tricky to get outside city limits on bikes when heading east
  • How they work: Hop on and ride off
  • Pros: Good exercise; faster than cars in traffic; never worry about parking; some bikes can carry more than cars; kids love riding on bikes
  • Cons: Can take some practice to learn to ride in the street with cars; can fuel an obsession that becomes more expensive than planned (although way cheaper than a car) and unnerves friends and colleagues; theft is a problem in San Francisco (although a recent arrest has improved matters dramatically)
  • What it costs: Ranges dramatically, from $50 for a beater bike found on craigslist (quality unknown) to $3,500 for a snazzy new cargo bike, but without kids almost everyone will do fine walking out of the local bike shop on a $500 commuter, with kids ditto on a $1500 cargo bike. Any decent bike shop will let you test ride extensively before purchase. Electric assists for hills and heavy loads run $500-$5,000, but most reliable models run $1,000-$2,000. Maintenance and repair costs are bupkis, even for electric assist bikes, which recharge for pennies.
  • Good to know: If you’re hauling kids you probably need more bike than you think you do. Many people buy a first bike that’s inadequate for their needs and have to replace it (guilty as charged). But even the most wildly expensive cargo bike with electric assist costs less than the estimated cost of car ownership for a year. And also less than an amateur road bike.
  • Also good to know: If you fear breakdowns, you can buy nationwide bicycle roadside assistance from Better World Club.
  • Personal experience: This is our favorite way to get around.

3. Public transit (around here, primarily the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, aka Muni, but also systems around the bay for trips outside the city including BART, Cal Train, and Golden Gate Transit)

  • What it is: Buses, street cars, trains
  • When to use it: When it’s too far to walk; when the bike breaks down; when feeling lazy or when the hill situation or route is unclear in advance; when we have lots of time
  • How it works: Find a route using a trip planner (Baytripper app, 511 through Google Maps), head to the nearest stop, pay, and get on. In SF, the Pocket Muni smartphone app can identify how close the next bus (or whatever) is.
  • Pros: Inexpensive; accessible; nice views; riding historic streetcars and cable cars is a thrill; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, most of whom are kind
  • Cons: Horribly unreliable (Pocket Muni can help, but still); aging equipment that breaks down; dirty; the most useful routes are often incredibly crowded; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, some of whom are mean and/or insane
  • What it costs: In SF, $2 for adults, 75 cents for kids but cable car rides are $5; to go outside the city, costs vary but are still cheap. Fares are cash and exact change only unless you buy a Clipper card.
  • Good to know: Public transportation is like getting work done at a dental school: the price is right, there are no perks, the service is as promised but it takes a long time.
  • Personal experience: Very useful, but flawed (however I feel the same way about cars)

4. Taxis

  • What they are: Cars driving around that will take you wherever you want to go on a fare schedule negotiated with the city in advance
  • When to use them: Only when we’re desperate
  • How they work: Call in advance for a pickup and hope someone actually comes, hail one on the street and hope it actually stops
  • Pros: Only car service legally allowed to pick up street hails; gets you anywhere you want to go at a predictable price
  • Cons: San Francisco’s taxi fleet is notorious for poor availability, the willingness of dispatchers to lie about sending a taxi for a pickup, the unwillingness of drivers to pick up people that don’t look rich and well-groomed, etc. The cars themselves are often filthy and I say this as a Muni rider. Drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or speed limits. All taxis in San Francisco are supposed to take credit card payments but trying to pay that way can anger drivers enough that they threaten passengers and/or throw their belongings on the ground. This has happened to me.
  • What it costs: $3.50 at pickup then 55 cents per fifth of a mile or minute of wait time, plus tip
  • Good to know: You can do better, see below.
  • Personal experience: Primarily hellish, although there have been exceptions

5. City CarShare (see also: Zipcar)

  • What it is: A membership service for borrowing cars. These are parked around the city in reserved parking places.
  • When to use it: When we have a reason to drive somewhere.
  • How it works: Apply for membership and pay the fee; if you don’t drive like a maniac and have a valid credit card, you’re in. Once enrolled, members can reserve any car in the system online or by phone (there is a smartphone app for droid phones, but not yet for iOS). They send you a key fob in the mail; when your reservation begins, swipe it on the reader in the front window to unlock the car. At the end of the reservation, swipe the fob on the reader to check the car back in.
  • Pros: For occasional drivers who live or work near pods, it’s much cheaper than owning a car and more convenient. For complicated trips (hauling six kids, going to Ikea) there are pickup trucks and minivans to rent. For people who like cars, there are interesting vehicles to drive: Mini Coopers, Smart cars, electric cars.
  • Cons: Need to schedule trips in advance and be aware when the reservation is ending or there will be late fees. Cars must be dropped off at the pod of origin, so all trips must be round trips, and members are responsible for parking in the interim. Not all members are responsible about bringing vehicles back on time or refilling the gas tank, which can be a hassle (although people who don’t live near a university like we do report fewer problems of this nature). Car sharing can be expensive for frequent users. May not be worth joining if pods are far away (unless you have a Brompton!)
  • What it costs: We pay an annual membership fee plus a set rate when using a car ($1-$9/hour) plus a mileage fee (35 cents/mile). Each membership comes with a certain number of “day trips” allowing a 24-hour rental ($48-$70/day plus 10 cents/mile) and more day trips can be purchased for $12 each. Membership includes insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance, tolls, and gas (or charging if an electric vehicle). Fees are charged at the end of the month to a credit card on file.
  • Good to know: Car share services have reciprocal relationships with their counterparts in other cities. Zipcar is more expensive and has poorer insurance than local nonprofit options.
  • Personal experience: Good; historically we’ve rented through City CarShare once every couple of months, although this has now increased to 1-2 times/month.

6. Rental car agencies

  • What they are: An ad hoc service for borrowing cars
  • When to use them: Longer-term rentals or business/out-of-state travel
  • How they work: Call or book online to reserve a car, hope we get something like what we requested
  • Pros: Lots of different cars available; no extra charges for long trips
  • Cons:  Most agencies require customers to come to them but don’t provide rides, which can be inconvenient (exceptions: City Rent-A-Car in SF, Enterprise nationwide). Insurance and gas are the responsibility of the renter. Cars tend to be in poor condition (relative to car-share vehicles) and it is obvious that some people smoke in them. Rental agencies tend to dump gas guzzlers onto renters who book economy cars, which is a drag as the renter pays for gas.
  • What they cost: Varies, in SF usually ~$40/day on weekends or ~$400/week plus gas, insurance for an economy car; credit card payment required
  • Good to know: Local agencies like City Rent-A-Car typically have better prices, cars, and service than national chains; airport pickups involve substantial additional fees
  • Personal experience: Tolerable, used for business trips but only because Matt’s company makes the reservations

7. Limousines/livery cars

  • What they are: Private car service for passenger trips
  • When to use them: When scheduling a one-way trip in advance, e.g. to the airport, in which case they are almost as cheap as cabs or airport shuttles for a family of four but vastly more reliable (at least in San Francisco)
  • How it works: Call a dispatcher or book online, usually several hours in advance
  • Pros: Cars usually come when scheduled or earlier; cars are clean; drivers obey traffic laws
  • Cons: Some services are more reliable than others; expensive; with kids a portable car seat may be needed although some provide child seats on request
  • What it costs: $55-$65 for an airport ride regardless of the number of passengers; other pricing is hourly or zone-based and typically comparable to or slightly more expensive than a cab (we only use these for airport trips so I’m ignorant); credit card payment required, tips often included
  • Good to know: Dealing with individual companies is a thing of the past thanks to Uber; see below.
  • Personal experience: We decided it was worth the money to take limos to the airport after a couple of incidents where cabs and airport shuttles didn’t bother to show up.

Peer-to-peer and beyond (this is where things get interesting!)

8. Bike trailer loans: If you’re a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, you can reserve and borrow Burley Travoy or Bikes at Work trailers for heavy cargo loads. Included for no additional cost with membership! (no personal experience)

9. Bike rentals: City CarShare is rolling out an e-bike plus cargo trailer rental option late in 2012, rates to be determined. Most of the other bike rental options in San Francisco are geared to tourists, but might be useful for family visiting from out of town; check Yelp for deals. San Francisco universities have relationships with a local bike shop that allows students and other visitors to rent a Trek 7.3FX commuter bike for a day ($25), multiple days ($12.50/day), or a semester ($175), contact milanal@lombardisports.com. (no personal experience)

10. Employer and transit shuttles: Some employers and neighborhoods offer free shuttle service to various locations throughout the city. Amtrak also takes people across the bay for no charge. If you’re near the route, these are the best deals in the city. Technically I work for the state so although my employer’s shuttles are primarily for staff and patients, anyone can ride them—see also PresidiGo, SF City and County, Nordstrom. Driver quality is better than cabs but worse than limos. In San Francisco, check university websites or Yelp for details on shuttle rules and routes, or ask around. Personal experience: Excellent

11. Casual carpool/slugging

  • What it is: Some cities, like San Francisco and DC, have established ad hoc car pool locations for regular commuters. In the Bay Area, drivers pick up passengers in order to use the car pool lanes on the bridges into the city.
  • When to use it: When you want to get into the city more quickly and cheaply than you could alone and the routes and times make sense
  • How it works: Head to a pickup location as a driver/passenger, then pick-up the next two people in line/hop in the next car that pulls up. Drop off/get out at the drop-off site.
  • Pros: Cheap; fast
  • Cons: The etiquette around payment of carpool tolls has not yet been established for passengers (some drivers ask for a contribution). Some people freak out about the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, although this is mitigated by the fact that drivers typically pick up two passengers (women passengers often refuse to join a two-seater vehicle in the casual carpool line; I know I did when I was using casual carpool).  The routes and times don’t work for everyone.
  • What it costs: As a passenger, up to $1, but often free. Drivers pay normal commuting costs but a lower toll.
  • Good to know: It’s nice that such cooperative arrangements can spring up organically, isn’t it? Sure, it’s not everyone riding their bike or transit to work, but casual carpool gets lots of cars off the road and reduces traffic.
  • Personal experience: I rode casual carpool for several months when we lived in Berkeley and it was pleasant enough.

12. Zimride

  • What it is: A formalized casual carpool; drivers taking long trips or regular commutes post rides to potential passengers
  • When to use it: Long road trips in lieu of Greyhound; also, large employers use the service to arrange regular carpools
  • How it works: Check out the website for posted rides and dates; sign up if there’s one that works and arrange pick-up/drop-off with the driver
  • Pros: Cheaper than driving alone; less grungy than the bus; can get picked up somewhere near where you live
  • Cons: Somewhat complicated to arrange; some people freak out about getting into a stranger’s car; ride timing dependent on the driver
  • What it costs: Varies; check website but SF to LA seems to run ~$50 per passenger (by comparison Greyhound is $45-$65 for the same trip, plus the cost to get to the station)
  • Good to know: There’s definitely a college student vibe to this service. Lots of discussion of music; unlike casual carpool, don’t assume you’ll be listening to NPR on this ride.
  • Personal experience: Nada, although my employer runs all its carpools through Zimride, which suggests it is decent.

13. Sidecar/Lyft

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer donation-based ridesharing
  • When to use it: When we want a lift across town for less than the cost of a cab that’s quicker than public transit, or when we don’t want to stand on the bus
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is and suggest a donation based on past community standards. If you accept, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. The donation is charged to your card on file.
  • Pros: Cheaper than a cab, faster than public transit
  • Cons: Mainly the usual freak-outs about getting into a stranger’s car, although drivers are screened, interviewed, and rated after every ride by the service and by their passengers (personally I’ve had much worse experiences in taxi cabs than I’ve ever had while ride sharing). Negotiating the suggested donation can be tricky if driver and passenger don’t agree. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat as suggested above.
  • What it costs: Varies, check the apps but seems to run approximately $1/minute; e.g. the community average for a trip from the Inner Sunset farmers’ market to the Financial District was $22, compared to an estimated taxi fare of $32 before tip
  • Good to know: Sidecar seems to have better coverage in San Francisco. Lyft is associated with the successful Zimride, but seems organized to primarily appeal to college students.
  • Personal experience: I looked up a ride with Sidecar recently when my sister’s rental car was hit and I thought I needed a quick way home; although I didn’t book, they said they had a car three minutes away and would get me home for $8. Further updates as events warrant. I suspect I’ll use this service eventually.

14. Homobiles: Moes gettin hoes where they needz to goez! [ho status optional]

  • What it is: A donation-based ride-sharing service for the LGBTIQQ community and friends in San Francisco. Homobiles was started after its founder heard too many stories of cab drivers in San Francisco refusing to stop in the Castro, or stopping and then soliciting passengers for sexual favors, or kicking same sex couples out for kissing in the car, or commenting negatively on bondage gear, or sharing unsavory opinions about the gay community, and so forth.
  • When to use it: When you want a cab but don’t want a cab driver
  • How it works: Text (or call) a request for a pick with your location, number of passengers, and any special requests to Homobiles at 415/574-5023. They’ll text back with your pickup time if they have a driver available (sometimes they don’t, but at least they’ll tell you) and off you go.
  • Pros: This is a donation-based service that wants people to feel safe, so they’ll give you a ride even if you can’t pay. No one will hassle you for looking queer, obviously. Some of their cars have bike racks.
  • Cons: Cash only. Sometimes there’s no driver available. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat. The name might freak out relatives from less urban locales.
  • What it costs: $1/minute anywhere in the city. $30 flat fee to San Francisco Airport (this may be our future airport shuttle!) Tips not included.
  • Good to know: Drivers will sell you a Homobiles t-shirt or hanky as a fundraiser (like every other ride sharing service, they’re being sued by SF taxi companies, but they’re they only one without venture capital backing).
  • Personal experience: Haven’t used it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but accolades.

15. Uber

  • What it is: A smartphone app-based booking service for limos
  • When to use it: When you don’t have the cash handy for Homobiles or they don’t have a driver available, or you really want to ride in a shiny black car with water bottles
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is, what kinds of vehicles are available (for more than 4 people, request an SUV) and the fare. If you book, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. A tip is included and the bill is charged to your card, with an emailed receipt; this is a cash-free transaction.
  • Pros: Same as limousines/livery cars but with rock-solid reliability and enforcement of good driving behavior (passengers are asked to rank the driver after the ride). Uber prides itself on having cars available at all times, no matter what, even on New Year’s Eve or during Pride.
  • Cons: Expensive; taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat
  • What it costs:$8 base fare, plus $4.90/mile while moving and $1.25/minute in traffic; $15 minimum fare and $10 cancellation fee
  • Good to know: Uber has coupon codes for new members that give $10-$20 off your first ride.
  • Personal experience: None yet, seems pricey (but great reviews on Yelp). I tried to order ice cream for my kids on Uber’s ice cream truck day but they were too busy, which frankly runs contrary to their whole “we will get you a car no matter what” image. I’ll cut them some slack as it was the first time they tried that, but still, hmm.

16. Getaround/Relay Rides

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer carsharing
  • When to use it: Primarily when you want to rent a car for longer periods than are cost-effective using a car sharing service
  • How it works: This is a more informal version of traditional car share. People who have cars available that they don’t use regularly make them available to people who want to rent one. Rates are set by the car owner and listed on the website. When you join (you’ll need a Facebook account) you can pick from a list of available vehicles and request a reservation. Getaround lets you pick up certain cars using your smartphone and an ID reader, but both services default to meeting the car owner and handing over the key. Drive during the reservation window and then return the car as the owner requested. The service provides insurance but the renter is typically responsible for gas.
  • Pros: Typically cheaper than all-day rental using a car-sharing service; much better insurance for the car-free than traditional rental car agencies; often closer to home than other options; owners are usually more relaxed about late drop-offs than car share services are
  • Cons: Handing off keys can be a hassle for non-smartphone enabled cars; rates are somewhat unpredictable; limited availability in some neighborhoods
  • What it costs: Typically $6-$12/hour in San Francisco, with daily rates of $35-$60 (although Getaround’s rental Tesla is much more). Weekly rates are also available. Where we live it’s cheaper than traditional car-sharing for day trips and more expensive for hourly trips.
  • Good to know: Getaround has better coverage and some keyless entry cars in both San Francisco and Portland, which makes renting for short periods more appealing. Relay Rides is national. Car-light folks can rent out their cars.
  • Personal experience: My sister rented a car through Getaround when we took a weekend day trip and it was more exciting than we’d planned, but that wasn’t Getaround’s fault. $50 for the day, and unusually, gas was included. I would rent through Getaround again, especially for longer trips.

Other interesting options that San Francisco does not have yet, but that are available in other cities

17. Bike share

  • What it is: Short term city-sponsored bicycle rentals available from pods scattered in popular travel corridors
  • When to use it: When you have a short one-way trip that’s still too far to walk or would take too long
  • How it works: Typically you buy a membership card, then swipe it to release a bike from one of the locked racks. Ride it to your destination and check it in at a nearby rack. Short trips are free or nearly so and longer trips are expensive. If there’s no space at a given rack, you can get free minutes to ride it to the next closest rack and check the bike in there.
  • Pros: Inexpensive, easy, fun to ride
  • Cons: It might be hard to carry a large load. You probably can’t ride with kids.
  • What it costs: Varies; free to a few dollars.
  • Good to know: California has no helmet law for adults, so don’t let not having a helmet stop you from trying a bike if that’s what it takes.
  • Personal experience: None, unfortunately, but you can bet I’ll try it when San Francisco rolls out its bike share program, supposedly later in 2012. Or maybe 2013. Or maybe never. Sob.

18. Car2go

  • What it is: A short-term rental program for Smart cars run by Daimler
  • When to use it: When you want to drive one-way, alone or with one passenger
  • How it works: You sign up, pay the annual fee, and get a member card to check into cars (typical rules about not driving like a maniac apply here). Cars can be reserved in advance online or by phone, or just wander around until you see a Car2go car with a green light on the reader, wave your card, enter a PIN, and drive off. Park the car in any legal parking spot at your destination, but there’s no need to pay a meter; Daimler negotiates an annual parking fee for its cars with the city and pays it in advance. Members get a gas card with the car and receive credits for filling up if the tank is less than a quarter full.
  • Pros: Seems very useful for last-mile travel for people who don’t want to carry a folding bike; or for emergency sick-kid pickups—e.g. I could schedule a car pickup for us at school and use the time it takes the driver to get to school to drive myself over from work with Car2go
  • Cons: Limited availability; only an option in a few cities; Smart cars only hold two people and there’s no way to install a car seat
  • What it costs:  Rates are the cheapest combination of 35 cents/minute, $13/hour, $66/day (plus 45 cents/mile if you drive the car over 150 miles per day), plus tax.
  • Good to know: Car2go membership recently became transferable throughout the cities where it’s in operation: if you’re a Car2go member in Washington DC, you can also drive Car2go vehicles in San Diego.
  • Personal experience: None, because it isn’t available in San Francisco, unfortunately.

Available anywhere, but use with caution

19 and last on my list: Mooching

My personal feeling is that if I regularly feel the urge to mooch rides, then we’re not really ready to live without our own car. We had one car for over five years, and in that time I can count on my fingers the number of times we asked for a ride, hinted that we wanted one (particularly with kids in tow: who has a spare car seat anyway?), or asked to borrow a car. Given all of the options available to us now, if we start to find ourselves consistently begging rides, I suspect that would be a sign that we should buy a car again.

That said, I don’t see anything wrong with getting a ride occasionally, particularly when we’re traveling. We were very grateful when a friend offered us a lift late at night last year when we were in Paris and we faced a long train ride back carrying two sleepy kids. There are times that people make an unsolicited offer to drive me somewhere, like at work when everyone is headed to another campus for a department meeting. And in those cases I usually say yes because I enjoy their company. And on the occasions that I have a rental car, I’ll often ask people whether they want a lift where I’m going, for exactly the same reason.

Thanks for asking, and thanks for sharing the ride, friends!

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Filed under car-free, commuting, family biking, San Francisco